Perhaps it’s no small coincidence that Canadian Horror King, Brad Anderson’s Vanishing on 7th Street (2010) takes place in Detroit, Michigan. Once considered the automotive Mecca of the world, the great Motown is now the most economically crippled city in the United States. Not surprisingly, the population is vanishing at critically disturbing rates. ‘Detroit’s Population Decline: 1 Person Departed Every 22 Minutes’ is a recent headline at the website of PBS News Hour which sums up the current situation. Back in 1950, the population of Detroit was 1.9 million. In 2010, the population had dwindled to considerably less than half that, at 713,777. In the period 2000 to 2010, alone, population dropped by 25 percent – an incredibly rapid decrease. (All stats according to US Census.)
Vanishing on 7th Street is a chilly little film that slowly creeps under your skin and scares you to death the very moment you begin thinking. Not the post-apocalyptic saga most critics claim, it is rather an apocalypse-in-the-now and what’s most frightening is its realism and credibility.
The director of such thrillers as Session 9 (2001), and The Machinist (2004), Anderson is no stranger to speculation – especially when it comes to the disturbed mind, our place in time, and whether human beings really can create their own existence and the world(s) they inhabit.
The plot appears simple. A somewhat awkward projectionist sits in his booth at a movie theatre, and steals seconds between films to munch on an apple and read his book about Roanoke and its legend of the lost colony. Suddenly the lights in the booth flicker, then shudder, like an electrical current on the fritz. Naturally annoyed, the projectionist exits the room with the use of the miner’s light that he wears on his head. It never strikes him, that he hears not a rustle or an utterance from the spectators assumed to be in the theatre. As the projectionist staggers down the long, darkened halls of the theatre in search of co-workers and an emergency generator, he begins to notice abandoned articles of clothing on the floor, as if their owners shed them in one frantic effort to flee. Finding no inhabitants or a working light in the theatre, the projectionist makes his way to a nearby tavern where he meets a little boy with a rifle, a nurse in search of her baby and a broadcast journalist who has managed to misplace everyone at his television station. As darkness descends inside and out, the survivors discover that fragments of light from remaining power sources may have evil intentions of their own.
It is very obvious that Anderson is an intellectual, well studied in anthropology (his major at Bowdoin College), religion and the human psyche. Yet, he artistically manages to camouflage this in his all too real characters that are no different than any of us. He plays upon human frailty, and especially growing fear, as he maps out his saga of survival of the fittest. Anderson accomplishes this – in the darkness – by dropping subtle clues that are easily missed if eyes are averted for even a microsecond. One such example is the intermittent appearance of a tiny girl clad in a ski hat, that resembles the hoods worn by women representations of Biblical times. The child never interacts with, or calls out to the survivors, and acts almost like a watcher from another space and time.
Anderson’s notion of vanishing is, by no means, original. Tales of disappearances are an intricate part of human culture since time immemorial. Mary Shelley toyed with a lone survivor in her apocalyptic novel, The Last Man (1826). Philip Wylie’s science fiction novel, The Disappearance (1951), is another disturbing example of people fading from society in inexplicable ways. Then of course, there is the great, Rod Serling’s first episode of Twilight Zone, entitled, ‘Where is Everybody?’ – a troubling concept Serling revisited time and time again, in his short life.
But it is not the novelty of plot at issue here, but how Anderson conjures the ambiguous questions, and their very plausible consequences, through characters that, ‘but for the grace of God’, could be any one of us. Then there’s the choice of setting – a time and place that adds a dimension of contemporary reality to Anderson’s horror-universe.
Amy R. Handler is a Boston-based film-maker, film scholar, writer and critic.